My heart sank deep inside the bottomless pit as I helplessly watched the specimen in front of me. “Haipyy Baidaay Mine Loves” was slobbered - in an ill-fitting combination of pink, green, blue, brown and other dirty looking icing colours - on the slanting, square-shaped thing labelled a cake.
Ekaette my colleague was bent double with laughter, she held her stomach with one hand, and covered her face with the other. I do not blame her one bit. I would laugh if I had not been the recipient of the “cake”. As her borehole of laughter appeared to be drying up, she advanced towards my desk for a refill. Turning the “cake” this way and that, she said; “Nne, it’s not that bad now, ehn?” She pointed at the dirty brown, supposedly white icing and said, “I rather like the plain white background, it’s kind of unpretentious, you know.” Huge bouts of laughter emanated from my other colleagues. Running back to her chair, Ekaette bent her face on the pale laminated desk and shook with the kind of laughter frowned upon in such formal settings.
“Nneka, I don’t know why you are upset that somebody sent you a cake” Tosin was saying as she advanced towards me with a butcher’s knife. Her stomach hung on top of her pants and brushed my desk as the fat in her upper arm shook at the task of cutting a huge slice off the “cake.”
Smell of smoke filled the room.
But why did he bother with the cake? Why not just let me be? I mean how cheap can a man be? It was that his Aunt who he exultantly told me the other day bakes with firewood stove and iron pot half-filled with sand. “She is making it” I remember him saying. “Each time I go to visit her I often have to wade through a long line of distributors and wholesalers waiting to be supplied her baked goods.”
Line of distributors and wholesalers indeed, I remember thinking. I imagined dirty clad young boys with transparent plastic buckets lined up to be sold dozens of kpuff-kpuff: combination of lowest quality wheat and cassava flour, water, baking powder and saccharin; buns fried with perpetually recycled bleached palm oil; meatpie without meat, fishless fishrolls, and granite textured little squares called cakes.
It was one of those distributors who delivered the “cake” to my office. You should have seen the smile on his face as he delicately opened the clear plastic bucket to retrieve the “cake.” I stood transfixed, shocked to my bone marrow.
“Aunty na your man give you this one” He bared all his teeth with delight, as if dreaming of the day he would be man enough to give such expensive surprise present to his own girlfriend. He wiped his nose with the back of his hands in two quick successions and wiped his hands on the MTN T-shirt he wore. I could count as many huge holes on the T-shirt as the teeth missing from his dentition.
“Madam say make I ask you when I go come collect the board” he said, both palms clasped together and raised to his chest.
“Which board?” I whispered, embarrassment stifling my vocal cords. Forefinger with a very long nail stuffed underneath with blackness pointed at the cardboard upon which the specimen he brought balanced.
“I will call her” I said. I just needed him to leave my office. Already, we were attracting a lot of attention from customers and colleagues. He had dropped his head pad - a dirty rag made of an old Ankara fabric - on the floor by his feet. The dust trapped on his feet, if properly harvested can build a sizeable anthill. The blue coloured slippers on his left feet was held together in three visible places, one with palm frond twine, the other two places with safety pins. On the right, a purple coloured leather slippers covered only three quarters of his foot. The remaining part polished the shiny marble office floor upon which our images reflected.
My eyes stayed on the deep gullies that lined the back soles of both feet; he must have trekked all the way from Ajegunle to Victoria Island with the “cake”.
“Here, take for your transport” I pressed N3,500 into his palms.
“Aaaah Aunty!” He screamed. “Chaiii Oga na lucky man o!” He bent his waist and spread his hands, swinging his hips from side to side in a mini dance. “God bless you Aunty. If Oga no marry you na who e go marry? You be better woman. I no know say woman like you still dey this our Lagos.”
I turned and fled as I sighted my Executive Director step out of her Hummer Jeep and make her way towards the revolving doors that led to the reception.
As I packed my bags after work, Ekaette surfaced in front of my desk.
“Babe, how far?” Wetin dey happen this evening? Her silky smooth skin creased at the forehead with concern and worry for her friend and co-worker’s happiness.
“He is taking me out for dinner” I responded, applying my pink lip gloss and sky blue eye shadow.
“Hahaaaa!” she roared, clapping her hands on the desk in uncontrollable amusement. “He is out of his mind. Don’t tell me you accepted, Nne?”
My silence spoke volumes.
“Heeeiiii! Ekaette don see the thing wey pass am for this life” she said. Laughing even harder, she quickly reached inside her bag.
“Take.” The hand that extended towards me held a packet of medication. “Take two tablets with water before you leave. Prevention is better than cure.”
I looked at the label and it was a pack of Imodium, indicated for the treatment of dysentery occasioned by contaminated food.
I ignored Ekaette’s outstretched hand and commenced to clear my desk.
“But, my sister this is not funny” she continued, putting the tablets back inside her huge purse.
“Which kind bad market dey do you for this marriage thing? How better girl like you go dey attract only wowo people? It is not normal o!”
“Well, maybe he is just testing me to know if I am the materialistic type” I responded, playing the wise woman. “The person that introduced us says he is a very nice person.”
At 29, I was really tired of being single and wanted to settle down. I had been advised to desist from being too picky and to not judge men unnecessarily especially when it comes to little misdemeanours such as the cake of that afternoon.
“Which person introduced him to you? Was it not his sister? Do you think she would ever say a bad word about her brother? My sister, stop wasting your time with that one. Come to my church on Sunday, I will introduce to Pastor Brimstone. This your problem no be for anyhow pastor to handle. You need to do complete 7 days dry fasting; no food, no water, no sunlight, no bathing.
Just stay in your room and call upon the name of the Most High God. After that you will go for serious deliverance for at least 3 days, plus midnight prayers. That is the only time your road will be cleared for the right man to come.”
“Ekaette, you know I am not really into all that church thing.”
“Nneka, stop this your too much book talk. Unusual situations demand unusual responses. Look at you? Since I knew you and men, it has been one story after the other; first it was that Geriatric who hoped you would nurse him to his peaceful demise, and then that Church Rat desperate to manage his mother’s diabetes, father’s high blood pressure and sister’s HIV on your salary, followed by the Skirt Chaser who….”
“Ekaette it’s enough please. Let our bygones be bygones”
“There is no bygone here, Nneka. The past is repeating itself all over again in this new guy and you are deceiving yourself that it is a new beginning.”
She waved her left hand as she spoke, her diamond encrusted engagement ring - evidence of her authority to point me aright in the matter at hand - flashed under the bright fluorescent bulbs.
Thankfully, her phone rang.
“Sweetie, honey pie, baby me! I will be with you in half a second, darrrling.” She blew her Blackberry a kiss as she hurried out. “We can give you a ride to where you are having the dinner if the road to the restaurant is motorable.” She said as she burst into another round of laughter, waving her Brazillian wig with abandon.
My phone buzzed. Baby am here, read the SMS.
I sighted his car as I stepped out of the reception. A metallic grey 2010 forerunner, limited edition complete with alloy wheels.
“Happy Birthday to the most beautiful lady in the whole wide world!” he said as he stretched his huge hands to shake mine.
“Thank you.” I smiled.
“Can I get a hug, please?” He said, spreading his huge chest apart as both arms covered the interior of the car. His cross-eyes directed a gaze intended for me at the side mirror.
Playing to the script, I smiled shyly and looked away. It’s too early for a hug, abeg. My people say that if greeting pass handshake then serious friendship don start. Hold your hug, Oga.
“OK. I am a patient man. I will wait till we get to the altar.” He grabbed and kissed the back of my hands. “Is this one forbidden, too?” He asked mischievously.
“How did you like the cake, my baby?” His eyes had a glint of pride in them.
“Thank you very much.” Was all I could say.
“You don’t have to mention that, my dear. Did you bring the board for Aunty?”
What crappy crap! Is he actually asking me about that piece of cardboard? Gracious Mercy hold my temper in check, please.
“Oh! The cleaner mistakenly threw it inside the trash. How much is it? I can pay for it.” I responded casually, not evening feigning remorse.
“Oh come on! It’s OK, My Love. I will pay her. You know I’d do anything for you, Sweetie.” I will do anything for you, I will do anything for you – he started to sing the song by 3T.
Your head is not correct. Paying your Aunty 80 Naira for trash is doing anything for me. I have suffered in this single life.
“So what do you want to eat? Anything baby. Anything. Just say it.”
I was about to say I felt like some good food from Ocean View Restaurant. If not for anything, I wanted to boast to Ekaette the next day that after all her taunts, we ended up going to some nice and expensive place.
“Point and Kill?” He continued before I could verbalize my longings. “A friend of mine owns a nice one not too far from here. The fish he sells are like Goliath. The pond is so huge and all you need is to tell his boys the size you want and they catch and prepare it in 20 minutes.”
“OK.” I said. You asked me what I wanted to eat and you took that decision for me. No problem.
Let’s be going.
I kept my eyes fixed on the dashboard decorated with plastic rose flowers and lots of green stems.
Stuck in traffic, I rolled down the windows and beckoned on a roadside vendor of MTN airtime. I deliberately asked for the lowest value airtime card, expecting my suitor to interject and ask the vendor to bring the card of highest value, times five or even ten. He ignored us. I intentionally spent quite some time rummaging through my purse supposedly to gather money to pay the vendor, as I stared at the cash scattered around his handbrake. The traffic in front of him moved, but he ignored the hooting of the cars behind as he fiddled with the car stereo, finally settling for the song To be a man na wah o!
We settled to eat fish.
“So as I was telling you my dear. My sister tells me you are a very good girl.” He chased a fly away from his glass as he reached for his Guinness Stout.
“I know my sister very well. She is not easily swayed by first, second or third impressions.” His eyes were fixed on the fish as he cut and packed almost the whole body into his plate, leaving only the head for me.
Chaii! Nneka you don suffer.
“You are the second woman she is introducing to me in my 39 years on earth” he said, spooning huge slabs of fish inside his thick lips. The soup guzzled down his bushy beard.
“The first one did not work out for some reason, but from the look of things, I believe we are going to work.”
You and who will work?
He smiled and sat back to look at me appraisingly, longingly, in a very lustful sort of way.
I smiled and picked at the eyes of the fish, wishing from the depth of my soul that it was both his eye balls I was having the singular pleasure of gorging out.
“I should have been in London right now for an important business meeting. But I postponed the trip to tomorrow because of your birthday. Just to show you how much you mean to me.”
Taking a brief break from eating his fish, he began to sing: You mean the world to me. You are my everything. I swear the only thing that matter. Matters to me, oh baby, baby, baby, baby, babyyyyy! he squeezed his flabby face in different directions and turned his head up, down, left and right, in a show of affection for himself, and not me. Nonsense.
“Darling, I have a beautiful surprise for you,” he said.
Dipping his hands inside his chocolate brown corduroy jacket, he brought out a beautifully wrapped package. The fuchsia pink and deep cream ribbon gave a delicate finishing to the peach of the paper. My head lightened a bit. Eheee. Amazi m. Chaii What a kind man.
I felt a pang of guilt as I opened the package. For the thousandth time in my life, I loathed my penchant for passing quick judgments on well meaning folks. I regretted all the negative thoughts that had gone on in my head about this suitor of mine. Imagine that I had almost mentally murdered this saint of a man for the sake of appearances; because of fear of what Ekaette, Tosin and others would think. Vain me! Is it not better to encourage the poor Aunt in Ajengule than to impress my elitist colleagues? Who cares about them, anyway? Instead of being selfish about it, I should have rather been happy that he chose to patronize his poor Aunt. Nneka, you must learn patience, understanding and appreciation, I chastised myself as my eyes caught a glimpse of a perfume bottle with blue and red designs on a white background.
He was sitting back, relaxed and smiling as he watched me slowly and carefully unwrap the presents. Besides the perfume bottle I sighted a small light and coffee brown stripped wallet. I brought out the perfume bottle and looked at the label, “Tonny Hilfinger” was splashed across it. The duct tape used in holding the pack together was almost falling off.
The wallet turned out to be even more pathetic. “Blueberry Authentic,” carved in glittering silver chipped off in several places, was loosely appended to the front of the wallet. Loose threads of various colours could be seen along the seams.
“I see you are overwhelmed.” He said as I stared incredulously at the fake designer items.
“That’s me for you my dear, I spoil my women” he said, barring his incisors or what was left of it. He lost part of his front teeth, he had told me, fighting over ice cream in high school. He did not care much about appearances or he could have very easily afforded the most expensive dentist in England for a replacement, he was also quick to add.
“And you think this is all I have for you, right? No way. Here you go.” He extended his hands under the table and retrieved another present. It was a flat board so beautifully wrapped I could have sworn it contained the original Mona Lisa painting.
“Surprise, surprise!” He said loudly. I extended hands shaking with trepidation and fear of the unknown towards him.
I inhaled and exhaled deeply to catch my breath before opening the package.
Sawdust poured on the remaining fish head and on my thighs as I peeled the lemon-yellow and white polka dotted paper off.
How shall I describe what accosted my sight? Even Great-grandmother on her deathbed at the ripe age of 96, did not look as wrinkled as the image that faced me.
“As beautiful as you are, Neky baby,” he enthused. “I asked him to paint you exactly as you are. No airbrushing , nothing. Just your natural beauty, girl! He painted that very beautiful picture in my office” he went on, ignoring my mouth that hung open in bewildered fury. “That life sized portrait right behind my desk, you remember?”
Yes, I do remember. I could have sworn the artist was trying to paint the Most Blessed Father Iwene Tansi of blessed memory, recently beautified by the Pope on his visit. Although the image did not in any way resemble Father Tansi, I reached the conclusion based on the blue and white colour the person put on, and the fact that my suitor is staunch Roman Catholic.
“You have met him, right? My younger brother the artist? You remember the young chap with me the very first day we met?” I heard him asking as my bladder and tear ducts welled up with rage.
I excused myself to use the restroom. It was all too much to handle in a single day.
This is a work of fiction. Chika Ezeanya blogs at www.chikaforafrica.wordpress.com